15 August 2023
Choosing the best options to decarbonise the gas grid
Xoserve's Decarbonisation Lead, Victoria Mustard and Tom Baxter, co-founder of the Hydrogen Science Coalition and Senior Lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, discuss whether there is enough evidence to support the use of hydrogen at scale.
The case for hydrogen – is there enough evidence?
When it comes to selecting the best options to decarbonise our energy system, few people have more insight than Tom. With over 40 years of expertise in the oil and gas industry, both in industry and academia, Tom specialises in the transport and transfer of energy, including heat.
“When it comes to options for future energy generation, there are some key discriminators to consider,” he explains. “These are capital costs, operating costs, safety, environmental impact, risks – including technical maturity – and more. These are sometimes competing aspects, and it is crucial to evaluate all of them correctly to make an informed decision.”
So, if we consider these discriminators, where does that leave hydrogen?
When it comes to decarbonisation, Tom believes that there isn’t one silver bullet, but that we can only reach our targets if we look at the energy system from a holistic perspective.
“When talking about the whole system energy market, there are four big tickets: heat, energy, transport and storage,” he says. “You can’t look at these in isolation. What you need is a holistic model, and I don’t see that existing yet. I hear so many assertions, but as an engineer I want evidence - give me the numbers. And I want these on a comparative basis.
“You need to give people information to allow them to make informed choices. I don’t believe we’re getting that balance of information, particularly when it comes to domestic heat.”
Especially when discussing the deployment of hydrogen in a domestic setting, Tom believes that evidence is lacking, and there are some crucial questions that have yet to be answered.
“There are two big things for me,” he explains. “How much is it going to cost me and is it safe? I’m not seeing anyone talking about what the retail price of hydrogen is going to be, when compared with electricity and natural gas. And what seems illogical to me is that if we make blue hydrogen from natural gas, then it will cost more than natural gas. If we make green hydrogen from electricity, then it will cost more than green electricity.”
As a result, Tom questions the cost-effectiveness of hydrogen for consumers, and believes that its deployment at scale could eventually lead to a rise in fuel poverty.
A question of cost
Questions around cost are arguably difficult to answer while hydrogen is still being tested in a domestic setting, with trials pushing forward in earnest.
For instance, as part of Gas Goes Green, SGN, the gas distribution network for Scotland and southern England, has launched H100 Fife, a first-of-a-kind national research project that aims to deliver 100% green hydrogen to 300 households in Levenmouth. H100 uses electricity from offshore wind turbines, making hydrogen production completely sustainable. Hydrogen produced through electrolysis is then stored in secured tanks, before being transported through a purpose-built network to customers.
Due to go live in Quarter 4 of 2024 and run for three years, this trial will play a pivotal role in providing some answers around living with hydrogen.
The main goal of the trial is to evaluate the effectiveness of using hydrogen in a domestic setting, not to provide answers on the associated costs. Yet, Tom believes that consumers should be given more information. “I think we should be able to at least arrange estimated hydrogen costs for the consumer. While H100 may work, it doesn’t mean it’s the best option,” he says.
The challenges of the UK housing stock
Another important consideration is whether hydrogen might be a viable option for the UK’s incredibly varied housing stock. Over 80% of the buildings that will exist in 2050 have already been built, so the UK faces a big challenge to retrofit existing properties with low-carbon heating systems to meet its legally binding net zero targets. However, replacing traditional heating methods with carbon neutral ones might not be enough, or not represent the fastest and most efficient way of reaching net zero.
“There’s a phrase I use, which is: who wants to sell you less? There is something that’s absolutely technology-independent, it’s technology we have now, and it’s a no regret option - that’s home insulation,” explains Tom. “That’s screaming at me, if we want to have any chance of meeting the next decade’s commitment – to cut our carbon footprint by 40% in a decade, a monumental task – we just need to use less of this stuff.”
However, while energy efficiency is a no-brainer investment, Tom agrees that there are a multitude of options to create a flexible and decentralised green energy system. What will be crucial is to be in a position to test these solutions within an integrated model covering many variables, such as storage, generation, energy efficiency, lifestyle and more.
There’s no easy answer to the question of our fuel future, but when asked about his dream energy scenario, Tom’s focus is on “safe fusion energy, for a limitless supply of energy”.
What are the best options to decarbonise energy?
In this episode of Decarb Discussions Victoria Mustard talks to Tom Baxter, co-founder of the Hydrogen Science Coalition and Senior Lecturer at the University of Aberdeen.
The key discriminators when choosing the best options for net-zero.
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